We got up and had breakfast, then drove on to Auschwitz.
Ros and I were excited, but also a little hesitant with regard to what we would find. We really wanted to go but at the same time knowing the history of the place didn’t – there was an awful uncomfortableness about the whole idea.
During this time of the year, you have to do a tour with a guide, which wasn’t a concern to us, as we wanted a tour and the story anyway, so we joined an English tour, and headed through the gates of Camp
Camp 1 was the original and smallest of 3 camps, that made up Auschwitz.
We seen the barracks, where people lived, as well as torture chambers and the square where individuals were shot and hung. The stories were horrible. Everything we knew we were getting into, plus more and worse.
A number of the barracks have been turned into exhibitions showing some of the belongings of Jews, found when the Russians entered the camp at the end of WWII. The things we seen included, shoes, suitcases, tooth brushes and combs. It was really quite confronting to see all the personal belongings and possessions of Jews who you knew, were put to death here at the camp.
The most disturbing exhibition was a pile of human hair. 2 tonnes of it in fact.
The Nazi’s had used the hair to make rope and webbing etc. When the Russian’s arrived, they found 7 tonnes of it in storage. This was not all the hair the Nazi’s had collected, just what was left or hadn’t been shipped at the end of the war.
It was estimated the average human has just 200 grams of hair so you can imagine how many people’s hair this was. There in a pile. Right in front of us. It was the most disturbing sight I have ever seen.
We also visited the first gas chamber and heard more stories of starvation, bastardization and torture. The camp doctor (not that he was there for the prisoners), used to do live experiments on the prisoners. His particular field of interest was fertility, and how to sterilize the Jews, but increase the fertility of the Germans.
It was just cruelty of the most unimaginable kind.
We thought we knew what we were getting ourselves into, but the enormity only really hit when we seen first hand the belongings. These were real belongings, owned by real people, their most important possessions in all the world. Just piles and piles of them. It mad me sad. It also made me angry.
After a short break, we were bussed across to Birkenau or the second Camp. It had been made for 100,000 people, roughly the population of Toowoomba, my home town. It had 4 main camps (about 25000 people each), and at one time 5 gas chambers. The train line ran all the way to the gas chamber and towards the end of the war, the Jews were simply shipped in by train, and walked directly into the gas chambers.
The Nazi’s had this charade they played, by first telling the Jews they were being shipped away for a fresh start and a new life; even getting them to pay for the train ticket. They would then pile them into cattle carts on the railway, and ship them directly to Auschwitz (and elsewhere).
When they arrived, they were marched to the gas chambers and told they would be taking a shower to clean up and for disinfection. They even had them write their names on their cases, and when they undressed for the shower, where told to remember the number of the hook they placed their clothes on. This charade was so successful, most happily marched straight to their deaths.
Disturbingly, the Allies knew what was going on here for at least 2 years before the end of the war, yet did nothing directly to stop it. Rightly of wrongly, they believed the best way to deal with Auschwitz and the death camps, was to defeat the Nazi’s, which ultimately they did, but not before, many many millions of human beings were worked, tortured and gassed to death.
At Birkenau there was a group of Israeli students walking through the grounds and doing a tour. Some kind of school excursion or something. As they walked through the grounds, they were waving large Israeli flags.
For me, this stood out as a act of defiance, a kind of we’re still here and your not to Hitler and the Nazi’s. The entire experience, the story, the camp, the belonging and especially the hair, has been one of the most moving things of my life.
As we drove away, lot of discussion around it between the family, as well as some reflection on how anyone could do that, and how an entire nation could support it. It just doesn’t make sense.
NB: I thought long and hard about sharing what we seen at Auschwitz in this blog given the graphic nature of this history. Ultimately I decided to publish my experience to bring light on this terrible set of events in our global history, in an effort to do my small part to ensure this kind of thing never, ever happens again.